Resident Frustration Boils Over At Meeting On Future Of Westbard

Resident Frustration Boils Over At Meeting On Future Of Westbard

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(Updated at 1:55 p.m.) Montgomery County planners could recommend 75-foot high mixed-use apartment buildings along River Road, a new Little Falls Library in a civic square and a new development of 50- and 80-foot tall buildings on what’s now a shopping center parking lot in the Westbard section of Bethesda.

Planners working on a revision of the Westbard Sector Plan presented their Concept Framework Plan to residents on Tuesday night at Westland Middle School.

The presentation included renderings of how development spurred by the yet-to-be approved Sector Plan might look along River Road and Westbard Avenue.

Planners also projected the Concept Framework would allow for triple the amount of housing units in the area today, with an additional 1,685-1,927 units allowed on top of the existing 1,104.

The renderings and housing projection elicited gasps and laughs from some of the roughly 250 residents packing the school’s cafeteria, many who have expressed opposition to more density since major property owner Equity One first met with them in January.

In a question and answer session that followed, the vast majority of the residents who spoke said they were against the proposed density because of concerns about traffic, school overcrowding or the potential loss of gas stations and auto repair shops that dot the dead-end alleys off River Road.

Some lambasted county planners. One man didn’t leave the microphone until planners attempted three different responses to his assertion — guised in the form of a question — that the plan was a “giveaway” to developers.

Others chose not to wait for their turn at the microphone, frequently yelling out while planners were attempting to respond to questions and concerns.

“All you’re doing by adding density is building a wasteland,” said one.

The Concept Framework Plan is a long way from finished product. Planners still must conduct traffic studies and determine density standards before they are scheduled to kick up the plan to the Planning Board next spring.

The Planning Board will then go through a series of public hearings and worksessions to come up with its own version of the plan that will be kicked up to the County Council, where the plan will go through yet another series of Committee worksessions and debate.

But Tuesday’s meeting, after a week of charrettes and meetings with residents, property owners and government agencies, was where some residents’ opposition to any development boiled over.

As planner Paul Mortenson explained why Montgomery County is pursuing more compact, walkable and urban communities, some in the audience literally hissed. 

“Nonsense,” yelled one resident.

“It is not nonsense,” Mortenson countered. “It has been proven to work throughout the world actually.”

Planners later said the concept of apartment and condo units above ground-floor retail would allow for fewer car trips.

One resident yelled out that she liked her car, and wanted to keep driving it.

Much of the new development would happen at the shopping center on Westbard Avenue owned by Equity One. The plan would allow Equity One to build a new street grid and 50-foot-tall mixed-use buildings on the existing surface parking lot that serves a Giant Food-anchored strip shopping center.

Equity One would be allowed to build an 80-foot tall building on the southeast corner of the site, opposite the playing fields at Westland Middle School.

In the center of that new development would be a civic green that would include a new Little Falls Library. The Library’s existing location at 5501 Massachusetts Ave. would be reserved as a future site for a new elementary school.

Planners are also hoping to “daylight” the Willett Branch Stream that now runs through a concrete channel from the northwest corner of the sector to the southeast corner. There would be a new walking trail there that would connect with the Capital Crescent Trail.

Planners also proposed a new intersection at River Road and the Capital Crescent Trail overpass, which would be accentuated by a new boulevard look for River Road. New streets connecting River Road with other heavily-used routes would be added, including one that would run from River Road south along the Capital Crescent Trail before connecting at Westbard Avenue.

It was clear from the contentious nature of the meeting that many of the residents and perhaps some civic associations will be fighting the proposals in front of the Planning Board and County Council.

Some residents didn’t even agree on the basic idea that development could provide a more attractive look for the area.

After one resident asked planners why there needed to be any changes made, Mortenson said one reason could be to get rid of the Giant Food loading docks that face drivers and pedestrians using Westbard Avenue.

“No,” yelled a resident in the audience, “it’s OK now.”

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